My Thoughts on Nagorno-Karabakh

Sunday, October 1

Since Azerbaijan's attack on the remaining Armenian-held territory in Nagorno-Karabakh on September 19-20, a number of people have gotten in touch and asked me what I thought.

So, here goes:  

Before anything else, one must acknowledge the human suffering that has resulted from all of this. No one can look at the pictures of refugees streaming out of Nagorno-Karabakh (also known as Artsakh) without a profound sense of revulsion, pity, and anger. 

Unfortunately, those people are pawns in a game that is being waged against them not simply by the "other side," but their own governments as well--the very institutions they now need to look to for survival.  

It also needs to be remembered that Nagorno-Karabakh is, after all, part of Azerbaijan, as it has always been recognized by the vast majority of the world's states since the breakup of the USSR in 1991. In the early 1990s, hundreds of thousands of Azeris were expelled from their homes and lands in Nagorno-Karabakh by Armenians seeking to break away from newly-independent Azerbaijan. 

And guess what? Nobody cared. 

Azeris running for their lives in Khojaly, February 1992

For twenty-five years, the world was cool with the idea that 10% of Azerbaijan's population would be made up of refugees and nearly 15% of its territory held by Armenian separatists. At a time when the US was diplomatically courting formerly Soviet republics like the Baltics, Georgia, and Ukraine, no pressure was brought to bear upon Yerevan to use its influence upon the government of Nagorno-Karabakh (which considered itself independent, not part of Armenia) to work out a compromise with Azerbaijan at a time when the Armenians still had leverage. 

When I was researching in Baku in 2004 and 2005, many of the women working in the library at the Azerbaijan Central State History Archive were refugees from Nagorno-Karabakh and Lachin (Armenian forces had also created the "Lachin Corridor" land bridge between Nagorno-Karabakh and Armenia, driving out still more Azeris). One woman told me that she had run from her house with no shoes on her feet. She, her son, and her father were all still sharing the single hotel room they'd been given when they'd arrived in Baku as refugees in 1992. 

The ladies of the Central State Archive library, Baku

For more than two decades no one felt any urgency to solve this problem, and then the world was somehow shocked when Baku, now much wealthier and more powerful (thanks to oil), managed to beef up its military and launch an attack to re-take Nagorno-Karabakh in late September of 2020. 

The result was a resounding military victory for Baku, but also a diplomatic win for Moscow. Azerbaijan was obliged to halt its advance, leaving about 20% of Nagorno-Karabakh in the hands of the Armenian separatist government. Russian peace-keepers were brought in to act as a buffer between the two sides. 

Then, last month: Baku, correctly surmising that Moscow is too distracted right now to impose the 2020 cease-fire terms upon anybody, re-launched its campaign to re-take territory lost in the 1990s. 

It's awful that the Armenians feel (rightly, I think) that they have to leave their homes, that it would be foolhardy and dangerous to stay. But it's also too bad that there was so little interest, back in the 90s, in addressing such wrongs at a time when the Armenians were winning in Nagorno-Karabakh. For as long as the Azeris were the primary victims, the world was fine with this being a frozen conflict.  

So, here are a few conclusions: 

a) If Yerevan and the separatist Armenian authorities in Nagorno-Karabakh had been given, in the 1990s, a serious message that they had to allow Azeris to return to their homes, neither the brief war in 2020 nor the even briefer one of 2023 would have taken place. The problem is, for as long as the victims were predominantly Muslim "Turks," nobody gave a damn. 

People in western countries tend to be more familiar with Armenians, and certainly are more used to the narrative of Armenian suffering at the hands of Turks. So, the idea that Azeris were actual victims, too, tends to get mentally discounted somehow. While the world had watched in horror in the 1990s as Serbs slaughtered Muslims in Bosnia, the fact that very similar events were taking place at the hands of Armenian separatists in Nagorno-Karabakh registered very, very low on the list of international concerns at the time. 

An interesting thought experiment: what if the government in Sarajevo found itself to be sitting upon billions of dollars in oil reserves, then used the money generated from this to purchase advanced weaponry and, eventually, retake territory from the Republika Srbska? 

There would be, to be sure, concern for the victims--Serbs fleeing their homes--but no coverage of the conflict would fail to note that the Serbs had themselves used savage means to take that territory and expel/exterminate the Muslims who had lived there in the mid-1990s. 

That's something that we're typically not hearing right now re Nagorno-Karabakh. I wonder why not?  

b) These events also tell us, once again, of Russia's weakening position in the Caucasus thanks to its ongoing attack on Ukraine. Indeed, alert Borderlands readers may remember that this possibility was discussed on these pages back in late 2022.

In the "not-so-Great Game" that the US and Russia have been playing for the past 20 years or so, both Armenia and Azerbaijan have been closer to Moscow than Washington. Indeed, Armenia is in the Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO), a military semi-alliance made up of Russia, Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan--the post-Soviet Dream Team! 

I wonder if Baku's recent success in Nagorno-Karabakh is giving folks in Tbilisi ideas about re-taking Abkhazia and/or Southern Ossetia. Probably not, as such an action would constitute much more of a direct challenge to Moscow than simply violating a Russian-backed cease-fire. But still, September's events are a reminder that Moscow's once vaunted influence in places like the Caucasus and Central Asia is weakening as a result of Vladimir Putin's ongoing fever dream in eastern Ukraine. If the dam ever does break for Russia in Ukraine, maybe Tbilisi would give it a try. What better time would there be, after all? 

c) It's too bad that people--even experts working on the region--seem to think that we need to pick a side between "the Armenians" and "the Azeris." Frankly, it sickens me to see people who couldn't have cared less about Azeris driven from their homes and lands raising the humanitarian flag once the refugees happen to be Christian. 

The refugees, all of them, are the real victims here. The governments who speak in the names of the victims are the ones committing the crimes. 

Anyone who is trying to peddle an "Armenian vs. Azeri" narrative, cheering on one side while booing the other, is just doing the bidding of these governments, whether or not they realize it. 


For all of my posts regarding Nagorno-Karabakh, look here

Also see: 

Kazakhstan, Russia, and the Secular-National-Authoritarian Model

Russia-Ukraine Notes: Early October Edition

Christmas at the Borderlands Lodge

N&P: End of Semester Edition

N&P:Annual Conference Edition

N&P: Padre Possibility Edition

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